Behind The Crown: The Truth About Prince Philip’s Title

I have been a fan of The Crown since it first started airing on Netflix. While the show primarily focuses on the private lives of the Royal Family, legal/constitutional issues do serve as plot points from time to time. This post is the first in a series that will examine The Crown‘s portrayal of these matters. Please note that, while I will not discuss the show’s plot in detail, there will inevitably be some mild spoilers. 

At the end of “Lisbon,” the Queen attempts to mollify the Duke of Edinburgh by making him a prince. While the Duke did in fact receive the title in 1957, it was just the final step in a long, drawn out process that had been chugging along for years. Thanks to documents from Britain’s National Archives, we can look behind the curtain at the secret process that led to the Duke of Edinburgh becoming ‘Prince Philip.[1]

When Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten married Princess Elizabeth, George VI made him Duke of Edinburgh and granted him the style of ‘Royal Highness.[2]’ He remained ‘His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh’ even after his wife ascended the throne. While protocol dictates that, a woman takes her husband’s status and the feminine form of his titles, a husband does not receive any title or status from his wife.[3]

Even though the husbands of female sovereigns do not automatically receive titles, they have often been given various marks of distinction. When Philip II of Spain married Mary I, an Act of Parliament made him King of England and Ireland.[4] Over a century later, Mary II insisted that her husband, William of Orange, should rule alongside her as co-monarch, which is why we speak of the reign of ‘William and Mary.’ Their successor, Anne, was married to a Prince of Denmark and Norway named George, but the only English title he received was ‘Duke of Cumberland.’ In the nineteenth century, Victoria wanted to make her husband Albert ‘King Consort,’ but when faced with opposition from her ministers, she opted for the title of ‘Prince Consort’ instead.[5]

Like Victoria, the present Queen was eager to honor her husband. As early as September 1952, she declared that he would rank immediately after her in the official order of precedence, except where provided otherwise by Act of Parliament (consequently, Philip’s gripe in The Crown that he is outranked by his eight-year-old son is not entirely accurate).[6]

By 1954, the Queen had hit upon the idea of making the Duke of Edinburgh a ‘Prince of the Commonwealth.’ She raised the issue with the Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, and on May 9, he wrote to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Simonds, to seek his advice on the subject. Sir Winston indicated that he was not too keen on the Queen’s preferred title, saying “[t]here is nothing singular about it as there might easily be several.” He personally preferred the title of Prince Consort, though he was anxious to confirm that such a title would have no constitutional implications.[7]

Lord Simonds confirmed Sir Winston’s belief that the title of Prince Consort lacked any constitutional significance, and he suggested that the Queen could confer it by Letters Patent just as Victoria had done with Prince Albert. The Lord Chancellor also shared the Prime Minister’s misgivings about the title of Prince of the Commonwealth, though he stressed that “I hesitate not to concur in a proposal made by The Queen.”

Lord Simonds believed that the Queen’s preferred title could present diplomatic challenges since India was a republic and therefore did not recognize the Queen as head of state.[8] The Commonwealth Relations Office soon entered the debate. Its constitutional advisor, Sir Charles Dixon, contributed to a draft memorandum which set out the procedures to be followed in conferring a princely title on the Duke of Edinburgh. If the title were to be Prince Consort, then the Queen’s Private Secretary would simply notify the Governors General of the Commonwealth Realms of her intentions (as a courtesy, a similar communication would be sent to the President of India as well). The actual grant of the title would be by Letters Patent under the Great Seal of the United Kingdom, making it a purely domestic act. However, if the Queen wished to make the Duke a Prince of the Commonwealth, the mandarins believed that there would have to be substantive consultation with the other Commonwealth countries, and they felt that unanimous consent would not be forthcoming.[9]

The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, Viscount Swinton, echoed his advisor’s opinion in a letter to Churchill dated May 13. Lord Swinton believed that both India and Pakistan would likely to object to the title Prince of the Commonwealth, while Canada would view it with ambivalence. Consequently, Swinton threw his weight behind the title of Prince Consort since he believed it would give rise to fewer objections.[10]

At that point, the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, complicated matters further by suggesting yet another title: Prince of the Realm. Sir Winston passed this suggestion on to the Lord Chancellor, who was not terribly impressed with it. He pointed out that, unless a particular realm were specified, the title would essentially be meaningless. At the same time, he also advanced a further argument against the title Prince of the Commonwealth by noting that it could cause confusion within Australia since it was formally known as ‘the ‘Commonwealth of Australia.[11]

Matters took an unexpected turn in June when the Queen informed Sir Winston that the Duke of Edinburgh had no desire to receive a princely title of any kind, but the Prime Minister presciently ordered that the discussions on the subject be preserved for future reference.[12]

Despite the Duke’s reluctance to accept a new title, the Queen was determined to make him a Prince of the Commonwealth. When the Prime Ministers of the Commonwealth came to London for a summit in early 1955, she asked Sir Winston to gauge their support for the title, though she also stressed that she would only proceed with the proposal if it had the unanimous support of the Commonwealth governments.

Initial reactions were mixed. Sir Winston told the British Cabinet that the Prime Ministers of Australia, New Zealand, and Pakistan supported the Queen’s proposal, but others were less enthusiastic. The Prime Minister of India noted that, while he personally had no objections to the title, it could conceivably generate controversy back home. The Canadian Prime Minister, on the other hand, worried about its potential constitutional implications. Meanwhile, the Deputy Prime Minister of South Africa declined to give a definitive answer until he had consulted his colleagues back home. However, Sir Winston believed that, if Canadian ministers could be persuaded to support the title, their South African counterparts would eventually fall into line.[13]

His optimism proved to be misplaced. The South African and Canadian governments ultimately came out against the title of Prince of the Commonwealth, and their opposition effectively torpedoed the proposal. On February 9, Sir Winston informed the British Cabinet that the Queen realized that her preferred title was no longer an option, though she was determined to find a suitable title for her husband.[14]

The two most obvious alternatives were ‘Prince Consort’ or ‘Prince Royal,[15]’ but the Prime Minister told his Cabinet colleagues that the Queen was not fond of either option. Ministers discussed the matter and came up with a simpler alternative (‘the Prince’), which the Prime Minister agreed to suggest to Her Majesty informally.[16]

Toward the end of February, the new Lord Chancellor, Viscount Kilmuir, explored the pros and cons of the new, shorter title in a memorandum for Churchill.[17] Lord Kilmuir saw its lack of a geographic element as its main advantage since it neatly sidestepped regional or national jealousies. The title would also be unique to the Duke, though Lord Kilmuir recognized that it could cause confusion later on when the Queen conferred the title of Prince of Wales on Prince Charles since people would inevitably refer to the boy as ‘the Prince’ as well.[18]

The Lord Chancellor also examined the thorny question of whether the Duke might already be a prince. Although he had been born a Prince of Greece and Denmark, he renounced those titles when he was naturalized as a British citizen. The fact that he was already a ‘Royal Highness’ muddied the waters further. While that style is often associated with British princes, it is not itself a definitive indicator of princely rank. To make matters worse, the Duke had been described as a prince in some official documents but not others. In the end, Lord Kilmuir decided that the Duke was not, in fact, a prince, and this view was buttressed by a Home Office mandarin who noted that George VI had specified that the Duke should be identified as ‘His Royal Highness Philip, Duke of Edinburgh’ when Prince Charles’ birth was registered.[19]

Bolstered by the support of the Lord Chancellor and the Home Office, Sir Winston approached the Queen with the suggestion that the Duke should be known as ‘His Royal Highness The Prince.’ The capitalization of the article was significant. Generally, only princes who were also the Sovereign’s children received that distinction, so giving it to the Duke would highlight his important position within the Royal Family.

The Queen accepted Sir Winston’s suggestion, and the Cabinet returned to the issue at its March 2 meeting.[20] Ministers questioned whether the Duke’s new title might end up giving him precedence over the Prince of Wales, but they decided to let the Queen sort that out at a later date. Viscount Swinton, the Commonwealth Secretary, confirmed that it was no longer necessary to seek the agreement of the other Commonwealth governments, though as a matter of courtesy, they should be informed of the decision ahead of time.

Toward the end of the debate, the Lord Chancellor addressed the issue of whether the Queen should receive formal advice from her ministers before conferring the title. In this case, he argued that it was the Sovereign’s personal decision, though he stressed that ministers should still be consulted before she made a final decision; however, the Government would not be offering advice in the constitutional sense of the term.[21] Lord Kilmuir suggested that constitutional niceties could be observed by having the Prime Minister write a letter to the Queen in which he commended her choice.

The notion that the Sovereign could confer a title without formal ministerial advice seems to have weighed heavily on Lord Kilmuir’s mind. Five days after he raised the issue in Cabinet, he reversed course. In a letter to Churchill, the Lord Chancellor noted that Victoria had sought her ministers’ advice before making Albert Prince Consort, so he felt that the Queen should also receive formal advice from the Government so that any “criticism that may arise should fall upon [ministers] and not upon her.[22]” However, he noted that, given the uniquely personal nature of the matter, the Government could not object if the Queen declined to follow their advice.

With the Cabinet lined up behind the title of ‘His Royal Highness The Prince,’ Sir Winston formally commended the title in a letter to the Queen.[23] But in the end, nothing happened. Her Majesty did not act on Churchill’s letter, and the issue of the Duke’s title appears to have been pushed to the side for two more years.

The sources do not provide a clear explanation for the pause, but a February 1957 letter from then-Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to the Queen’s Private Secretary, Sir Michael Adeane, may hold a clue. Macmillan criticized the Cabinet’s proposed title (‘His Royal Highness The Prince’), saying that it “falls between the two stools of being neither sufficiently formal nor sufficiently popular. It sounds either rather stiff, or to be a colloquialism or shortened version of a longer title.[24]” Instead, the Prime Minister thought it would be better if the Queen made the Duke a ‘Prince of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Her other Realms and Territories.’

However, the mention of ‘Her other Realms and Territories’ would prove to be a sticking point. Macmillan had evidently believed that the Queen could confer the title as Sovereign of the United Kingdom without consulting the other Commonwealth governments, but two days after he wrote to the Palace, his Principal Private Secretary, Sir Frederick Bishop, queried the Commonwealth Relations Office on that point. Sir Frederick made it clear that Downing Street would prefer to jettison the reference to ‘Her other Realms and Territories’ if it would require consultation with the Commonwealth Prime Ministers.[25] The Commonwealth Secretary (the Earl of Home, later Alec Douglas-Home) declared that such consultation would, in fact, be necessary unless the Duke’s title was confined to the United Kingdom.[26]

Meanwhile, the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, Sir George Coldstream, was working on the Letters Patent which would confer the Duke’s title.[27] The instrument he devised was modeled in part on Victoria’s Letters Patent bestowing the title of Prince Consort on Prince Albert.[28] The initial draft included a reference to the Queen’s ‘other Realms and Territories,’ but this was ultimately omitted following input from the Commonwealth Secretary.[29]

An amended draft of the Letters Patent was submitted to the Palace on February 14, and the following day the Queen’s Private Secretary let the Crown Office know that the Queen felt the document was ‘excellent.[30]’ However, she made a small change by inserting ‘The’ before ‘Prince Philip’ in the Duke’s new style. Again, the inclusion of this little article was intended to show that he was a top-tier prince just like the Sovereign’s children. Once all the details had been ironed out, the Prime Minister observed the constitutional niceties by formally advising the Queen to confer the title. The Letters Patent passed under the Great Seal on February 22, and the Duke’s new style was formally proclaimed in the London Gazette that same day.[31]

On the eve of the announcement, there were last-minute discussions between the Palace and Downing Street about the way in which the news should be broken to the press. Both sides believed that Number 10 should make the announcement in order to emphasize that the Queen was acting on ministerial advice. The fact that the whole project was ultimately Her Majesty’s idea was never mentioned.

In The Crown, the Duke’s assumption of his princely title is marked by a ceremony where the Queen places a coronet on his head and invests him with various regalia. It is a neat bit of cinematography, but unfortunately it was invented for the show. Apart from the Prince of Wales, there are no formal investiture ceremonies for princes, and they receive no special regalia.[32]

The decision to give the Duke of Edinburgh a princely title was far more complicated than The Crown makes it seem, and the extended wrangling within the government shows how seriously they take matters of protocol.

NOTES

[1] I am greatly indebted to François Velde of Heraldica.org for making these documents available online.

[2] Recorded in The Gazette (London Gazette), issue 38128, 21 November 1947, pg. 5495.

[3] This doctrine is a consequence of the fact that English common law once held that, upon marriage, a woman’s legal identity would be subsumed into her husband.

[4] The statute 1 Mary sess. 3 c. 2 is an interesting document because, while it gave Philip some of the trappings of royal power (e.g., his name would appear alongside his wife’s in official documents), it also sought to preserve Mary’s authority over the kingdom. Philip could “aid her Highness…in the happy administration of her Grace’s realms and dominions,” but he had to obey English law, and Mary would enjoy exclusive access to “the benefices and offices, lands, revenues and fruits of the said realms and dominions.” Additionally, she could only grant offices and lands to natural-born English subjects (this provision was intended to stop Philip from filling the English government with cronies from Spain). Most importantly, Philip would only enjoy these privileges during his wife’s lifetime.

[5] The fact that Albert was German made him suspect in the eyes of many British people, and he was not terribly popular in the first years of his marriage. Although Victoria gave him the style of ‘Royal Highness’ shortly before their wedding, she had to wait seventeen years before making him ‘Prince Consort.’

[6] Recorded in The Gazette (London Gazette), issue 39657, 30 September 1952, pg. 5147. She could not alter Philip’s precedence in Parliament since that was fixed by the statute 31 Henry 8 c. 10.

[7] Sir Winston Churchill to Lord Simonds, May 9, 1954 in François Velde, “LCO 6/3677 Title of Prince HRH Philip Duke of Edinburgh,” Heraldica.org, accessed December 30, 2017, http://www.heraldica.org/topics/britain/TNA/LCO_6_3677.htm. Hereinafter cited as ‘Velde.’

[8] Lord Simonds to Sir Winston Churchill, May 10, 1954, in Velde.

[9] Draft Memorandum from the Commonwealth Relations Office, May 11, 1954, in Velde.

[10] Viscount Swinton to Sir Winston Churchill, May 13, 1954, in Velde.

[11] Memorandum from Lord Simonds, May 13, 1954(?), in Velde.

[12] Personal Minute from Sir Winston Churchill, June 23, 1954, in Velde.

[13] The National Archives (hereinafter cited as ‘TNA’), CAB 128/40/21, Most Confidential Record to CC 55 (9), February 4, 1955.

[14] TNA, CAB 128/40/22, Most Confidential Record to CC 55 (10), February 9, 1955.

[15] ‘Prince Royal’ would have been an innovation, though the feminine version has been associated with the Sovereign’s eldest daughter since the seventeenth century. The title of ‘Princess Royal’ is not held automatically. The current holder, Princess Anne, did not receive it until 1987. The Queen herself was never Princess Royal since, when she was still a princess, the title was held by her aunt, Princess Mary, Countess of Harewood.

[16] Most Confidential Record to CC 55 (10), February 9, 1955.

[17] Viscount Kilmuir to Sir Winston Churchill, February 26, 1955, in Velde.

[18] The heir to the throne does not automatically become Prince of Wales. The title must be specially conferred by the Sovereign, and in the case of Prince Charles, that did not happen until 1958. However, he was Duke of Cornwall from the moment of his mother’s accession.

[19] Sir Austin Strutt to George Coldstream, February 28, 1955, in Velde.

[20] TNA, CAB 128/40/23, Most Confidential Record to CC (55) 19, March 2, 1955.

[21] At first glance, this might seem like a radical proposition since the Sovereign’s dependence on ministerial advice is one of the cornerstones of constitutional monarchy, but in practice there are a number of exceptions to this rule. For example, appointments to the Order of the Garter and the Order of the Thistle have been made without ministerial advice since 1946.

[22] Viscount Kilmuir to Sir Winston Churchill, March 7, 1955, in Velde.

[23] A draft of the letter is in Velde: it begins “The Prime Minister with his humble duty…” It seems to have been sent to the Queen no later than March 9. See Sir Winston Churchill to Viscount Kilmuir, March 9, 1955, in Velde.

[24] Harold Macmillan to Sir Michael Adeane, February 11, 1957, in Velde.

[25] Sir Frederick Bishop to D. I. Cole, February 13, 1957 in Velde.

[26] Sir Frederick Bishop to Sir George Coldstream, February 14, 1957 in Velde.

[27] The Clerk of the Crown in Chancery heads the Crown Office, which is the department responsible for preparing official documents such as Letters Patent.

[28] Sir George Coldstream to (?), February 14, 1957, in Velde.

[29] Sir George Coldstream(?) to Sir Frederick Bishop, February 14, 1957 in Velde. See also Sir George Coldstream(?) to Sir Austin Strutt(?), February 14, 1957 in Velde.

[30] Sir Michael Adeane to Sir George Coldstream, February 15, 1957, in Velde.

[31] Recorded in The Gazette (London Gazette), issue 41009, 22 February 1957, pg. 1209.

[32] This is not the first time The Crown has invented a ceremony. In the very first episode, there is a scene where George VI gives Philip his peerage titles (Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, and Baron Greenwich) and makes him a Knight Companion of the Order of the Garter. From a ceremonial standpoint, it is a muddled mess that has little basis in reality.

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